Sunday, May 15, 2005

Close encounters with The Pod People

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Since excitedly flagging down the MP3 player bandwagon and clambering aboard towards the end of last year I've been wracking my brains trying to concoct novel and inventive uses for my new gizmo. Topping the bill so far is transferring digital audio to it and playing the files back on the move. You can mock, but mark my words, you'll all be following my lead before you know it.

Music would be an obvious candidate, but then it's always been more of an accompanying treat for me. I like to let music wash over me while I'm doing something which requires a degree of concentration; reading, writing emails or articles and so on. In fact I can't recall a time when I've ever felt compelled to sit motionless in a chair, staring at the walls simply listening to music. Within seconds I'd be propelled into action - I'd be tidying this, fixing that and organizing the other. I suppose I'm a casualty of the internet age - multitasking has become part of the natural order of modern life and anything less feels slothful.

On the contrary, when I'm out and about traveling from a to b I'm captive, incapable of getting my teeth stuck into my 'to-do' list and I can devote my full attention to whatever is being pumped into my brain through my ear-buds. In other words, my mind is free to listen to something a bit more stimulating than background music; audio books, political commentary, debate shows and news programmes, for example - all of which are available in 'podcast' format.

'Podcast' is a voguish contraction of 'iPod' and 'broadcast', the iPod being last year's best selling tech toy; a hard drive based MP3 player devised by Apple (as if you weren't already aware). While iPod users have certainly put free audio content on the map, you don't have to embrace this fad to appreciate podcasts. If you're labeled a positively subversive outcast for using a flash-based MP3 player then so be it. Personally I like to flaunt my black ear-phones wire over my clothes against the backdrop of a Persil white t-shirt. One day my wild rebellious nature will get me into serious trouble. :|

A podcast can comprise all manner or combination of audio content that has been pre-recorded and jammed into a self-contained downloadable format. They are designed to be synchronized with your iPod or desktop via RSS feeds in much the same way as textual bulletins or articles, though should also be available directly without you having to wrangle with any kind of intervening software.

The emergence of podcasts appears to be a reaction to the lack of easily accessible online audio content. Many radio stations allow you to stream their programmes live, but this is only any use if you happen to be sitting near your computer when they're on air. Other stations make 'on demand' broadcasts available for a limited period of time, and while this is a step in the right direction, it doesn't make it any more convenient for you to capture this content and listen to it on the move at your leisure. This is precisely why it defies belief that some podcasters deliberately limit your access to their shows, forcing you to delve into their site's source code to locate direct links to their MP3 files. On one hand they're sticking two fingers up to the frustratingly precious commercial stations, and on the other they're following them down the same path. What's it all about, Alfie?

Niggles aside, podcasts have given a voice to Joe or Josephine Bloggs (Blow or Doe to you yanks), the average citizen who may or may not have an important message to convey, yet who does not have the leverage to publicize their opinions through traditional channels. They are revolutionary in that anyone with a computer and a microphone can get involved and penetrate a medium which used to be the exclusive domain of the rich and sponsored. Whether anyone will want to listen to your home-brew broadcasts is another matter entirely, though in theory, anyone can become a DJ, news anchorman/woman or talk show host overnight. As you'd expect, whenever you have a free-for-all system like this in operation you get to experience the whole spectrum of offerings ranging from 'why did they bother?' to 'wow! he/she/they should be syndicated worldwide!'. Husking the pearls from a seabed of decaying debris is a rewarding exercise in itself - it's what makes talent scouts show up for work every day.

Some podcasts are actually just audio blogs i.e. someone has decided to read aloud their text updates for the sake of lending their sites an extra dimension. Others would be better described as audio archives of commercial radio shows. These are really convenient because you don't have to capture the streams yourself to be able to make them portable. Nevertheless, they aren't really in-keeping with the spirit of podcasting - that is amateur DJs, radio personalities or musicians embracing the opportunity to showcase their talents on a shoestring budget.

Not one for casually dabbling I visited Podcast Alley, what appears to be the most acclaimed podcast ranking portal, and proceeded to download a random broadcast from 10-ish cast entries from each category - roughly a gigabyte worth of audio entertainment. Over the past few days I've been transferring a selection of these to my MP3 player before setting off on my travels to and from work to establish which ones will find their way into my favourites list.

Through pure random chaos, first up was Barefoot Radio. I was impressed by some of the unsigned bands they plugged, couldn't hear a word of the prank call segment because the volume plummeted out of range at this point (I had gloves on and was trussed up like a cold Brit in March so couldn't get to the volume button), and was then aurally assaulted by a totally out-of-the-blue torrent of abuse aimed at an ex-friend of the host. Listening to this retched, self-absorbed tirade transported me back to a time when I regularly found myself caught up in the middle of explosive rows between my parents; times when I would have given anything for a power-off switch. Curse you! - that's four whole years worth of therapy down the pan! ;) I didn't have a clue who he was ranting about and didn't much care to find out what he'd done to rub him up the wrong way (most likely he ate the last teacake or committed an equally heinous misdemeanor worthy of such a vitriolic diatribe). Apparently the guy is an f-ing, f-ing, f-ing f-er times 10, and so on and so forth. My three year old nephew has a better developed vocabulary than this prima-donna. Christ! Either get some new material or make your point and move on! I don't want to listen to you air your dirty laundry. Ever heard of email or the telephone? Needless to say I jumped to the next track long before this one ended. Somehow I don't think I'll be repeating the experience.

Getting off the bus I didn't catch the name of the next podcast because it was drowned out by the background traffic noise of some of the busiest streets in Manchester, but can tell you that the subject matter revolved around separating the many facets of contemporary life into one of two categories. Things either, like totally sucked ass dude, or you know, like soooo rocked. Before reaching for the 'next track' button again, I fleetingly wondering if it takes much practice to sound permanently stoned, or if actually being permanently stoned was the way to go.

"Ah, Free Talk Live sounds promising", I thought hopefully. I gather this one isn't quite a grassroots podcast since it's regularly aired on a variety of commercial stations, nevertheless, it was a breath of fresh air after listening to the previous dross. As the name suggests, the show is an ad-hoc phone-in affair directed by the callers themselves. That said, the hosts do a superb job of carrying the show - by offering their considered take on current affairs - whenever callers are thin on the ground. If you're looking for intelligent debate with few boundaries, FTL is definitely worth checking out.

Feeling uplifted by this discovery I was sorry to hear the final seconds of my FTL sample fade into silence. Following FTL was The Peanut Gallery, a podcast featuring a weekly-narrated short tale of the tall variety. I love the concept, the sardonic introductions, the delivery... the authors consistently present polished performances, spiked with vitality and set to appropriate music.

At present there are only three to choose from; 'Last Words', 'Telemarketing' and 'The War'. For me, a short story should be fast-paced and conclude with a short, sharp shock, or an intriguing twist that leaves you ruminating over all the possible latent themes and symbolism. 'Last Words' fits this brief like a glove, and I have high hopes for the latter two compositions. Even if you have no more than a fleeting interest in fiction, audio or otherwise, this is a podcast which deserves a prominent spot in your bookmark collection. I for one will certainly be keeping a close ear on it in future.

Next in my track-list would have been a podcast called 'A Brit Abroad', only my MP3 player gave it a snooty side-wards glance, curled its lip with a snarl and refused point-blank to play it. It posed no difficulties for iTunes when I got home, but was hardly worth the wait. It put me in mind of the sort of video postcards more tech savvy travelers like to beam back home to their friends and family to keep them abreast of their adventures. These can be fascinating if you know the movie-makers personally, but pretty uninspiring otherwise. That some podcasters refer to their nearest and dearest without first explaining to the listener who on earth they're talking about leads me to believe that their broadcasts weren't destined for public consumption at all - that they somehow accidentally found their way into cyberspace. You went to who's 21st birthday party, and who got off with who?

I wouldn't have mentioned the show at all except it got me thinking about British accents. Why is it that my fellow Brits in all the podcasts I've heard so far sound completely alien to me? Great Britain is but a piddling dot on the world-map - I've visited its north, south, east and west extremities and am familiar with the disparate dialects of its populace, yet when I hear them speak on air, my initial thought isn't, "ah, he's one of us". Is it that Brits who phone into radio shows, or record their own, are a different breed entirely? Until I'm officially certified as insane I'll presume something fishy is afoot here and tread very carefully when coming into contact with these impostors.

Several months before discovering this whole podcasting malarky, I had been searching for a new talk show host to keep me company on my way to work. A spot of Googling led me to a site hosting ripped versions of a phone-in programme called the Tom Leykis Show. I'd never heard of the guy until now (sorry to bruise your ego Tom), but reasoned that if someone had been going to all the trouble of capturing, editing (thankfully the commercials end up on the cutting room floor) and archiving a show which airs five times a week, it must be pretty damn good! Genuinely excited at this point (yes, I'm a sad individual I know), I downloaded a variety of his broadcasts - both past and present - to get a flavour of the kind of topics raised.

Every show opens with the same sound-bite:

"This is where America gets together to talk about the issues you (drawn-out, dramatic pause) reaaaaaaaaaaaally care about. It's a different kind of radio talk program. We're the radio talk show that iiiiis (another dramatic pause) not hosted by a right-wing wacko, or a convicted felon, no! I'm your host".

"Ah ha, so we're going to be getting to grips with some of the Big Issues then", I thought optimistically. No such luck unfortunately. To my disappointment I found that Tom is pretty much a 'one trick pony'. Once you've heard one self-absorbed pantomime, you've heard them all. The show exists to warn men of the wicked ways of money-grabbing, soul-sapping, devious, manipulative women. Tom aims to teach men to be as deceitful as he assumes most women to be so they can get "more tail for less cash" while avoiding the commitment of marriage, loyalty, responsibility and so on. He approaches relationships in the same way a soldier approaches a battle zone - peril is presumed to lurk around every corner; it's a case of kill or be killed. The guy is so shallow he insists that the few women who call into his show inform his screener of their height, weight and cup size before being permitted to speak on air! In the event of him losing an argument with a female caller, having these statistics close at hand allows him to resorting to calling them fat, greedy porkers, thus diverting our attention. The rules of Leykisland dictate that this renders him victorious by default. If his verbal sparring partners happen not to be obese, he employs his other hackneyed ruse; hysterically yelling at them to drown out any dissenting opinions.

In-between telling women to go on a diet and playing the same banal sound clips ad nauseam (every caller is 'taken out' in one style or another), he likes to point out that he earns a seven figure salary, oh and has a well-stocked wine (vintage of course) cellar and can afford a Mercedes or three. I gather we're supposed to gasp and shrivel up like a raison in fits of jealousy. Vacuous drivel aimed at the lowest common denominator - it's prototypal misogynist cavemen like Tom and his callers who give men in general a bad reputation. Until now I thought I was jaded and cynical - next to Tom I'm a beam of sunshine sporting a prozac perma-smile. I stopped listening because I was developing an unhealthy yearning to open up my wrists with something sharp and leave this world for good. Next.

Day two of my foray into podcasting kick started with the very upbeat and easy on the ear Leo Laporte aka The Tech Guy. If you're American and fond of computers you're likely already more familiar with Leo than I am - apparently he was, at one time, the star of technical support TV shows, 'Call for Help' and 'The Screen Savers'. Personally I've never watched either of these, but vaguely recall from bulletin board posts I've skimmed through that droves of fans were furious when they were canned recently (or the format changed for the worse). It looks like I missed the boat there, though the radio show seems to be plugging the gap admirably. Leo really is a breath of fresh air to me seeing as tech talk shows (TV or radio) are far from commonplace here in Britain. I've worked in lots of offices where you'd be given suspicious looks for so much as broaching such geeky topics of conversation as internet forums, file sharing and the like. These same people were perfectly happy for me to resolve their computer issues of course, as long as I didn't go into great depth explaining what went wrong and how to avoid the same problem in future.

I'm a highly competent computer user (modest too!) so tend to find that I already know the solutions to caller's conundrums. Even so I don't mind re-treading such familiar territory because Leo's commentary and news items alone are worth 'tuning' in for. He's an instantly likable character who has quenched my thirst for nerd culture immersion (just don't tell the people I work with I said that).

It's a Saturday now as I write this paragraph, and the first one since summer last year to be blessed with a glimmer of sunshine. The blue sky is gloriously vivid, the respective vocal equipment of the local bird population has defrosted sufficiently to allow them to chirp out a sprightly ditty or two and people are brazenly stepping outside without their coats and gloves. Everything is generally hunky-dory. To make the most of this unexpected bout of warm weather I decided I would wander a bit further afield than I usually do - a-field and in the fields actually - it's been a while since I paid those horses a visit so why not? Fully aware that the Dawn and Drew Show is presently the top-rated podcast, I enthusiastically loaded up my MP3 player with nothing but D 'n' D tracks and set off towards those awaiting green pastures feeling... well, however one feels when they want to say 'pretty darn chipper' without sounding like the antiquated Mr Burns of Simpsons fame.

I could barely hear the first installment of D 'n' D. Even with the volume ramped right up to the max it was as though they were whispering... oh all except for that brief segment where the couple's pet dogs come bounding into the 'studio' emitting the kind of high-pitched barks that would wake the dead. Yeah, thanks for that chums. I have highly sensitive ears, though luckily don't suffer from a weak heart. You would have been hearing from my lawyers otherwise! :p

Anyhow, as the shows progressed, the volume gradually normalized. Upgrading their microphone helped to improve the quality of their output a bit too. Now the show was reaching my ears at a sound level detectable by people as well as bats and other creatures that use echolocation to navigate, I realized that it is totally unstructured and ad-hoc. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as you have something stimulating to share with your listeners. I don't think I'm being too harsh when I say that I didn't find discovering what Dawn and Drew were wearing and what they ate for breakfast on any given day especially absorbing. Is it just me? Am I missing something here? Why is mundane chatter about nothing of any great significance so appealing? After subjecting my poor eardrums to a dozen episodes of the D 'n' D show I snapped and deleted the remaining tracks as if under the influence of an autonomic reflex. With an abrupt spine-quiver and shake of the head I regained my sensibilities, switched to 'radio mode' and listened to that for the remainder of my journey.

If you've ever read an article about podcasting you will have heard of the Dawn and Drew Show. Although they can't claim to have jump-started the podcasting phenomenon, they are regularly alluded to as the 'poster children' of this contemporary art form. The husband and wife duo 'aired' their first show in September 2004 and swiftly ascended through the ranks of the Podcast Alley chart to occupy pole position. So clearly hordes of listeners are voting for them; what is baffling - to me at least - is why?

Geek News Central and MacCast have a lot in common; one specializes in 'puter tech oriented information you probably shouldn't admit to caring about in polite company (maybe I'm being too Brit-centric here, I don't know?), and the other specializes in 'puter tech oriented information you probably shouldn't admit to caring about in polite company, albeit with a heavier focus on Apple gossip, official announcements and helpful titbits. Don't get me wrong; I'm as geeky as the next techno-junkie (and don't mind admitting it... erm, online at least), yet at the same time recognize that not everyone I meet offline will share my passion.

To be honest, having listened to both broadcasts one after the other I didn't feel I'd gained any more than I would by, for example, scanning through the latest articles at Slashdot or Mac Rumors. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that they're essentially blogs in audio format. Again, don't get me wrong (you keep doing that, damn it!) - being the aural equivalent of such esteemed, staple-diet favourites as Slashdot or Mac Rumors is kudos of the highest order (come to think of it, this seems to be precisely the aim of some podcasts). I wasn't disappointed in the least and will likely become a regular listener on both counts; after all, you can't read a web site while you're pounding the streets getting your daily exercise.

Sooo like, what-ev-errr. That's my, like, breakdown of what, you know, like toootally sucks ass dude, and what, like, you know, oh my Gawwd, majorly rocks on, you know, planet podcast, and stuff, you know? If you don't absolutely agree with me on every single point you're wrong, you worthless, imbecilic, fat, ugly loser. Please accept my apologies; in the process of researching for this article I've overdosed on radio shock jocks and can't help picking fights with anyone who crosses my path, even the ones who wholeheartedly agree with me, yet need to be insulted for their own good regardless. Are you still on the line moron? Sorry.

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